SHOMA A. CHATTERJI | 25 SEPTEMBER, 2018
Film critic Shoma Chatterji pens a tribute to Kalpana Lajmi (1954 – 2018)
I will forever remain grateful to my close friend Hilla Sethna, a film publicist and journalist who established contact between Kalpana Lajmi and me, ages ago. I had introduced myself at the Delhi International Film Festival of India when Lajmi’s first directorial film Ek Pal was screened. She came across as a very warm person, minus airs of any kind, brash, forthright and loud, almost to a fault. She promised we would meet back in Bombay and got in touch with Hilla. We met over a wonderful lunch at a posh hotel along Juhu but the lunch took second place to the conversation.
It was a long interview but we did not notice when the steward came and informed us that they were about to close the restaurant after lunch. Lajmi said she had assisted her cousin Shyam Benegal for ten long years but the assistantship did not yield anything so she set forth to direct her own film. She also lamented that she could not really get to know her mother’s brother Guru Dutt because she was just too little when he passed away. We met several times after that and just before Darmiyaan was screened in a Kolkata theatre, she told me, quite loudly, “Please do not say it in front of 500 people if you do not like the film.” That was Kalpana.
Kalpana turned out to be her own person, as director and as a woman who lived with Bhupen Hazarika, 28 years her senior, for nearly 40 years while he never gave her the social recognition of wife or life partner. She made very powerful feminist statements and chose her stories with great care. At least three of the films she directed were powerful in terms of narrative and in terms of technique plus music which Hazarika took care of.
She once secretly confessed to me that after Ek Pal, her leading ladies gave her a lot of trouble and sometimes, she felt like giving up the film altogether. But someone else’s money was involved and she had to go on and suffer the starry airs of her leading ladies. But two of them, Dimple Kapadia and Raveena Tandon won National Awards for their performance in her films. Raakhee complained that her role was cut short as the shooting went on while Dimple caught pneumonia while they were shooting in freezing Rajasthan. Kalpana reportedly got into a tussle with her producer for a certain film and he retaliated by refusing to promote or market the film in any way.
Lajmi was a filmmaker whose signature had a lot of pomp and style. She mostly chose themes that revolved around women. But in sum, she tended to lose out to the lavish mounting and the musical gimmicks of commercial cinema. For Ek Pal and Rudaali, critics panned her for deviating from the original and drastically changing many things in Mahasweta Devi’s Rudaali, which is still the subject of research among literary scholars. But in retrospect her films stand independent of the stories that inspired them and stand out as films directed by Kalpana Lajmi, not as films based on such-and-such literary work.
Till Darmiyaan, she seemed to be obsessed with spectacle which sometimes tended to cut into the narrative and dilute the intensity of the narrative’s final statement. For example, the romantic nuances between Sanichari and the Thakur in Rudaali or turning the two rudaali women Sanichari and Bhikni into mother and daughter which they were not in the original story was uncalled for and out of place. Her fondness for spectacle tended to diffuse the focus of the film. But they won prizes, they found space at festivals and the music was rich and so, perhaps, her choices were her own and she stood by them valiantly.
However, with her direct link to Guru Dutt, this fondness for spectacle might perhaps be rationalised as Lajmi’s own way of trying to consciously keep away from his image and style. Take away the credits from Ek Pal and Rudaali and they could be the work of any good and skilled director from the commercial mainstream. This means that Lajmi’s films are not gender-specific in terms of style even if she chose a woman as the central character.
Critic Chidananda Dasgupta rightly states that spectacle creates distance between the observer and the observed; the understanding of the mind of the human being in a predicament requires closeness between the observer and the observed, asking for the removal of all sights and sounds. Carl Jung said this in his Psychological Types, way back in 1933. Many years later, through Darmiyaan, Kalpana Lajmi strips this argument of all its frills to reduce it to the raw reality of the pain of actually being born biologically as a person with an ambiguous gender-identity. Immi (Arif Zakaria) is a genetically born hermaphrodite. Darmiyaan traces ‘his’ love-hate relationship with ‘his’ mother, Zeenat Begum (Kirron Kher). It is a relationship which ultimately reverses the roles of mother and ‘son’, with the loving ‘son’ being left with the onus of ‘mothering’ his own mother when she loses her sanity completely.
Darmiyaan is the story of a little boy who was not really a ‘boy’ but whose mother forces him to believe that he is a normal male. As a little boy, while playing with his friends on the beach, he discovers that he is not sexually normal. But his grandmother, his mother and his aunts refuse to explain to him his biological deformity, and he grows up convinced that he is definitely a male. The world teaches him otherwise. The onset of Immi’s trauma begins with Champabai, an elderly eunuch, who comes to fetch him as one of their own to live with them in their small, ghettoised world of singing and dancing and masquerade at marriages and birth celebrations. Zeenat refuses to let Immi go. Less because she loves ‘him’, more because she is afraid that if ‘he’ leaves, the truth might be revealed and might spoil her ‘star’ image. ‘He’ begins to feel ‘his’ difference from others around ‘him’ although ‘his’ mother persists in proving to the world that Immi is a normal male. She brings in a prostitute to co-habit with ‘him’ one night. The incident merely intensifies Immi’s tragedy.
The narrative and the cinematic space as a demystification of motherhood define Zeenat Begum. She teaches Immi to address her as Apa (older sister) and drowns herself in the indulgences of being the top star of the Hindi screen in the 1950s. Immi is content playing her secretary, her servant, her caring attendant, her financial accountant all rolled into one. His ‘failure’ lies in his inability to cope with his gender identity. When another young starlet, Chitra (Tabu) replaces Zeenat, she gets sucked into the vortex of self-consumption through alcohol and gambling. She loses her lover, her house, her money, her belongings. Immi is the only one left to care for her. She is trapped within the frame of her life-size mirror, playing out the historical Anarkali, bedecked in all the finery of the tragic lover of Mughal history.
The story is set against the backdrop of the slow and steady growth and evolution of Hindi film music, tracing its development as a distinct school of Indian music per se supported by Bhupen Hazarika’s brilliant musical score. Lajmi’s research into two very opposite fields of human life, those of the eunuchs and those of the film industry, enriches the tapestry of the film and invests it almost with a three-dimensional texture. It is as though the super macho Inder (Shahbaz Khan), Zeenat’s lover who ditches her when Chitra comes along, is designedly juxtaposed against the effeminate character of Immi.
During their days of penury and hardship, Immi comes to terms with ‘his’ destined birth. He joins a eunuch group to sing and dance with them for a living. In one of ‘his’ encounters with reality, Immi is gang-raped by a group of young men, adding to ‘his’ list of humiliations and private hell. ‘He’ picks up an abandoned baby from a dustbin but is forced to hand it over to the kind and generous Chitra. Immi’s final tryst with ‘his’ sex-identity comes when the baby is kidnapped by Champabai who decides to emasculate the sexually normal baby, as a revenge for eunuchs not having been able to get Immi within their fold. Immi comes to terms with reality. The picture is grim, but Immi is a survivor.
The film is a tragic unfolding of how masks are fiercely protected, by both the mother and the ‘son’. When the mask cracks, the truth of life shatters the facade, revealing the absolute cruelty behind it. Zeenat cracks along with her mask but Immi does not. Darmiyaan boldly establishes the direct link between Zeenat’s mental disintegration with her failure to fulfil the maternal role, unlike a ‘normal’ mother. Even in her relationship with her ‘son’ Immi, Zeenat is forever ‘performing’ the role of a ‘good’ mother who dotes on her ‘son’. When her ‘performance’ for the screen and for real life is over, she dissembles and disintegrates forever, slipping into her Anarkali costume and relating only to its reflection. Zeenat wipes out her motherhood and chooses to cling to the magic, fantasy world of cinema. As the film closes we realise that the genetically normal Zeenat Begum is mentally abnormal. It is her genetically abnormal son who is shown to be a real man, against all the non-men (including Inder) put together in the story.
Instead of focussing on the tragedy of a eunuch, Lajmi’s narrative slowly shifts towards an understanding of this strange mother-son relationship against the backdrop of the Hindi film industry. With her sympathies for Immi, she manages to make one feel the pain of being someone like Zeenat Begum. Sparklingly fresh performances from Arif Zakaria, Ritha Devi, Hilla Sethna, Tabu and Kirron Kher underscore the fact that Hindi cinema is finally liberating the image of the mother from the taboos and constraints of a patriarchal culture, to make it the subject of serious psychological study. Lajmi attained cinematic and directorial maturity with Darmiyaan, which is also the last Kalpana Lajmi film that merits discussion.
Daman (Oppression) was a poor example of exaggerated melodrama stretched beyond the limits of audience tolerance. The film was a crude and extreme portrayal of a man in colours so violent that the oppressed wife seemed weak even by comparison even when she struck back on Viajaya Dashami day in her clichéd Mother Goddess avatar. The screenplay was crude; the presentation was gross, so much so that a good technical team and good music could do nothing to save the film from disaster. Her last film, Chingaari, had a rural base where women in the red light area were tortured and exploited constantly by the temple priest portrayed by a visibly evil Mithun Chakraborty. Sushmita Sen as the beautiful prostitute, who strikes out in rebellion but fails to save herself, offers a voice of protest. But the film was less than a ghost of Lajmi’s first three films.
What happened to the director who made Ek Pal and Rudaali and Darmiyaan? Was she slowly sucked into her relationship with Hazarika that took a toll on her creative potential as a filmmaker? Or, was she overshadowed by his massive public persona? Kalpana was hardly the kind to be drowned under a dominant personality. But one does not really know, does one? Maybe it was the cancer that was slowly and steadily sucking life out of her which had no existence without her creativity? She also had to look after Hazarika who was very ill for quite some time before he passed away in 2011, ending a relationship that had become Kalpana’s entire world, Kalpana who did not quite care for formal ‘labels’ like ‘wife’. Or did she? No one will now know…